A career in the field of wildlife conservation is not one you approach casually. Rather, it takes years of schooling and hard work to prepare. And even then, jobs are scarce and the competition for those few positions is fierce. Someone who knows that well is Donna Schwab, a wildlife biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife, for the past 25 years.
“My first job was actually in the accounting field, and I worked in that area for five years,” said Schwab. “But having always been a kid who enjoyed stomping around in the woods, as I entered my early adult years I became more aware of urban sprawl and consequently my interest grew in developing and providing wildlife habitat. I also became interested in the migration of wildlife species. At that time there was no Internet to research careers, so I asked a local park naturalist about her job. ‘Naturalists teach people about nature,’ she said. I’m glad I asked, because I didn’t really want to do that!”
What Schwab really wanted to do was work hands-on creating wildlife habitat and enhancing wildlife populations. “Through more research I began learning about the science of wildlife biology, and that seemed to fit what I wanted to do,” she said. “So I quit my accounting job, moved to Columbus, Ohio, and enrolled at The Ohio State University, majoring in Wildlife Management. Ironically, now that I’m toward the end of my career, it’s become very apparent that no matter what your position in the conservation field, a huge part of it is teaching people about wildlife and nature.”
As for required schooling, Schwab said that most entry-level jobs in the wildlife conservation field now require at least a two-year associate’s degree studying a natural-resources curriculum. She said it’s also helpful if a candidate has experience with chain saws, shop tools, farming equipment and even wildland fire fighting. Above all else, she stressed the importance of a willingness to work hard and not be afraid to get your hands dirty.
A four-year college degree will open even more doors in this highly competitive outdoors field. Some wildlife biologists have a master’s degree, earned by studying a specific wildlife species. And if you think you might eventually like to teach at the college level, a doctorate degree (Ph.D.) will be required.
During her career, Schwab has spent time conducting wildlife surveys, banding animals and staffing hunter-check stations. She’s worked with whitetailed deer, wild turkeys, bald eagles, ospreys, trumpeter swans, Canada geese and other waterfowl. But her favorite wild critter is the peregrine falcon.
“Peregrines are elusive birds of prey that nest high on cliffs, bridges and skyscrapers,” she said. “In the capital city of Columbus, Ohio, where I’m assigned, we have webcams focused on a nest 41 stories above the Ohio Statehouse. And over the years because of those FalconCams and the Columbus Falcon Blog, we have reached tens of thousands of people around the world who otherwise would be oblivious to these magnificent birds and wildlife conservation in general. The overwhelming public appreciation and interest in the project is just as much a rush for me as climbing out on a ledge high atop a skyscraper and having a screaming peregrine falcon dive at me at 100 mph!”
Most wildlife biologist jobs are with state and federal government agencies, but with the public’s growing concern for the environment, there are an increasing number of wildlife biologist positions opening in the private sector. Schwab mentioned being patient and flexible as you search for such jobs.
“It may take some time to land permanent, full-time employment,” she said. “And when first getting started, you might have to take one or more jobs in other locations than where you would ultimately like to be located. Besides the necessary education, potential wildlife biologists should also have that extra edge of dedication, a wide range of outdoor interests and a strong willingness to learn beyond the classroom.”
Finally, Donna Schwab mentioned the importance of outdoor experience. “While education is certainly important, so is hands-on training,” she said. “Anyone seeking a career in wildlife management/biology should try to get as much experience as possible through internships, part-time work, even volunteering. And good communication skills—both written and spoken—are essential; because the truth of wildlife management is that it’s 98 percent dealing with people, and only two percent dealing with wildlife.”
A love of the outdoors is a start toward a career as a wildlife biologist, but simply enjoying hunting, shooting and other field sports is not nearly enough. Think you might have what it takes to become a wildlife biologist? A good place to begin searching for more information is with your state wildlife conservation agency.